Today marks the 150th celebration of the modern American Thanksgiving, established in the midst of the Civil War in a proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln issued his proclamation in October 1863, setting the last Thursday in November as a day of national thanksgiving. Lincoln noted that despite the horror and waste of the Civil War, which by 1863 had already seen the carnage of Shiloh, Antietam and most recently, Gettysburg, the nation outside of its battlefields was still prospering.
“Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore,” Lincoln wrote. “Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.”
This, Lincoln noted humbly, was not due to his leadership nor the wisdom of any other man, but rather was “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
Lincoln’s decree made a national holiday of individual thanksgivings that date to the time of the earliest European settlers of the New World. Among these were our own New England Pilgrims, who gave thanks for a bountiful first harvest in 1621 at Plymouth. Colonist Edward Winslow described the day in “Mourt’s Relation,” a report addressed to those Separatists who had stayed behind in Holland and England:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”